In his beautiful and thought-provoking 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, director David Gelb follows the daily life of a then-85-year-old Jiro Ono, a master of sushi-making in Japan. Jiro still works incredibly long hours every day to perfect his art, having started working in sushi restaurants at the age of seven. Jiro practices the Japanese discipline of kaizen, meaning “change for better” or “Improvement”. The object or goal of kaizen is to try to continuously improve at an effort every single time you practice it. Large corporations in the United States have Continuous Improvement departments that have lengthy kaizen intensives, sometimes not realizing how it came by the name.
For several years now Jiro’s tiny restaurant in a Tokyo subway stop has earned three Michelin stars (Ono is the only sushi chef to ever garner three), and in 2014 he served renowned sushi hound President Obama, who declared it the finest he’d ever eaten. World class chefs go to Jiro for their own sushi dreams. And about that dreaming... Jiro speaks often about dreaming of making sushi every night. Ways he can make it a little better, a little more efficient, even more pleasing to the consumer. He loves those dreams. He gets grumpy when he has to close his restaurant for something crazy like a holiday. Or when he’s honored by his government.
It often makes me wonder if Gary Harris dreams of basketball. Because Harris certainly knows his kaizen.
Harris made another step forward in his arc as a player and playmaker for the Denver Nuggets, shouldering more of the usage and leadership for the team in his fourth season. This year, his efficiency shot through the roof as he was tasked with shouldering more of the scoring load for much of the year. Most impressively, with his shot totals increased, and some of those extra shots in less-advantageous positions, Harris still only saw minor dropoffs in his shooting efficiency.
Gary saw a two percent dip in his three-point shooting percentage, and a half a percentage point against his two-point shooting, but that on 71 more two’s and an incredible uptick of 139 more three-point attempts.
Harris missed 15 games this season, but when he was on the floor, he was one of four Nuggets to score over a thousand points this year (Nikola Jokic - 1385, Jamal Murray - 1352, Will Barton - 1268). With that, Harris played eight less games than Jokic and 14 less than Murray or Barton to achieve those numbers. When Harris was on the floor, he was getting it done, grading out amongst the top five shooting guards in the league from several different angles.
Key Stat - Find your Happy Place(s)
As exceptionally detailed by Stiff’s own Adam Mares in his Locked On Denver Nuggets podcast on Thursday, a part of Harris’ slip in shooting percentage was facilitated as much by where his shot were being taken as anything else. With the Nuggets experimenting with a few different offensive schemes, Harris saw his shots at the rim drop by a fair bit. Harris attempted six more shots inside of five feet last season than he did this one. And don’t forget he played 10 less games and over 500 less minutes last year. Gary also saw more attention out beyond the three point line, both due to scheme and reputation. That he rounded up to a 40% shooter from outside the arc this season is a testament to how much he was still contributing.
Best Moment - The Dagger at the Buzzer, with Westbrook watching
Could there be any other? Harris provided one of the most thrilling endings to a Nuggets game in recent memory, electrifying the home crowd. Seriously listen to the roar at the Pepsi Center when this shot falls. A testament to the connection Harris and Jokic have when playing together that this fell into place so nicely.
Areas of strength
Consistency: Harris was the most consistent player the Nuggets had on the floor last season, with Coach Michael Malone routinely extolling the virtues of “knowing what you’re going to get every night” from Gary. The number bear that out as well, game over game, and month over month. Harris’ career improvements have been a real model of kaizen, just improving steadily in nearly every area, time and again.
Shooting: Adam touched on this in the podcast beautifully, but Harris increased his shooting percentage on pull-up jumpers by 10 percent, from last season’s 37% to this season’s 47%.
Steals: Gary shot past his best season total in steals (97 in 2015-16) by over 25%, landing at 122 steals for the season, good for 1.8 per game, tying him for seventh in the league with Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Areas to improve
Danged dreaded defense: Ryan Blackburn kicked off this section of his killer Jamal Murray eval by mentioning that the Nuggets could ALL stand to improve on the defensive end , individually and collectively, especially in the backcourt. That said, Harris is often deplyed to take on the best starter of the opponent’s backcourt night in and night out while also adding a larger load on the offensive end. Harris is already one of Denver’s more capable defenders, and would be a nightmare for all opponents defensively if he were a little longer. That said, his knowledge, BBIQ, and skillsets are all solid on this front, and Harris will rarely embarrass you on that end of the floor.
Share share share: It may seem antithetical to tell Harris to shoot more and share more, but his assist numbers dropped from last season, especially notably during the offensive experimentation phase of this last year. Denver’s offense is at its deadliest when the ball is flowing like the Poudre after the first big snow melt. That flow can only occur when Denver is back to cutting, sharing, and looking for the open man on the floor.
Back to the basket: No, not like posting up, like get back to getting to the rim. Beating a dead horse from an earlier mention, but Harris took 12% less of his shots at the rim this season than last. How much more efficiency would it have taken for Denver to still be playing basketball this month?
Expectations for next year
Kaizen, baby: Gary Harris is the model for slow and steady improvement, due to his long-standing commitment to putting the work in, during the season and the offseason. We may not get to see all of the aspects of what Harris works on during his offseason, but you can bet he’ll be working at his weakest points this break.
Take me to your leader: Though Nikola Jokic is working his way (and should be) to the de facto leader of this Nuggets squad, Harris has always led by example, and is doing so more and more with his voice as he matures with the squad. Harris’ always-even temperament and non-stop motor provide a great example and calming influence to his peers and even his leaders, and he becomes more a leader for this team every campaign.
Go to 11: Harris saw big leaps in his ball handling, usage, leadership, ability to finish, and responsibilities this last season. As the Nuggets larger picture continues to coalesce, it becomes very easy and tantalizing to imagine Harris as the stellar third member of a Jokic-Murray-Harris Big Three for Denver someday, and Gary’s surest path to that goal is by simply turning up the volume on every aspect of his game. As much a part of the Nuggets success as Harris was in this season, Denver will need even more from him to reach their hoped-for heights.
If Gary Harris can continue the pace of improvement he’s set over the last four seasons, he’ll soon be a part of conversations around postseason and All-Star game play. In four years, Harris has gone from who-is-that? nobody to one of the more respected young talents in the league. His leaps thus far have made most every pundit, whether a Nuggets fan or not, reconsider what his ceiling might be. One sure way to help...
Dream of basketball, Gary. I’m going to dream of one of your 36-point games from last year, and then that dagger to Westbrook.